Put aside for a moment the fantasy setting, and the brace of swords and spears – if you want hard proof that Naraka: Bladepoint is doing things differently to most battle royale games, you need look no further than the very beginning of a match. There is an island, yes, and there are 60 players all trying to survive within its ever-shrinking circle, but it’s missing what must be the genre’s single most iconic moment: the drop. There’s no plane or bus to jump from here, just a simple gridded map with players claiming squares like this is some massively multiplayer game of Minesweeper.
Once spots have been picked, and the countdown reaches zero, players are magicked over to the island in a shower of bright petals. Instead of entering from the sky, you all begin the game on the ground. Just don’t expect to stay there for long.
Every piece of scenery on Naraka’s Morus Island – the trees, the cliff faces, the tall slope of its buildings’ Xie Shan roofs – is there to be climbed. Every vertical surface can be run along, clambered up, clung to, every inch providing a potential handhold, a point where you can catch your breath before the next stage of your ascent to the peak. Or you can take the easy option, and simply grapple your way there.
Powered by spools found among the usual colour-coded loot, the grappling hook is perhaps the single most important tool in Naraka’s arsenal. It can grab onto any point and launch you headlong in its direction. This can be used to set up treetop ambushes, to flee when you’re outmatched, or to stay right on the cusp of the circular boundary as it closes in. It can also attach to another player, letting you close the gap instantly and – if you can time it right – land a blow that will knock them off balance, which can be enough to swing the entire fight in your favour.
Once weapons meet, Naraka veers entirely from the battle royale formula, revealing itself as an accomplished action game. Every melee weapon has a horizontal and vertical attack, each of which can be charged up to unleash a more powerful variant. However, these are vulnerable to parrying, which not only creates an opening for your opponent but has a chance of disarming you entirely. It’s a simple rock-paper-scissors foundation for a combat system whose skill ceiling we suspect will be considerably harder to reach than that of the local architecture.
Naraka might be the debut game from Hangzhou-based 24 Entertainment, but its origins stretch back to 2002, when lead producer Ray Kuan began work on a game series called Meteor, Butterfly, Sword. It soon became the most popular action game in China, installed on practically every computer in every net café in the country. Kuan calls it “one of the highlights of my career to this point”, and it established a pattern for the projects he’s worked on ever since: 3D martial-arts games with a focus on player freedom. “Little did I know,” he says, “I would be walking this path for almost 20 years.”
After the launch of Meteor, Butterfly, Sword’s mobile version in 2018, Kuan decided to move on. At the time, battle royale games were in the ascendancy, with Fortnite and PUBG drawing record-breaking numbers of players, and Kuan saw an opportunity to take the style of game he’d been honing for decades and make a push beyond China’s borders.
“We thought that the two were a perfect match,” 24 Entertainment marketing executive Raylan Kwan tells us. “Battle royale was, and still is, a very popular genre in the global community.” But while other studios rushed to join the fray with similarly styled spins on the battle royale concept, 24 could see a glaring gap in the market. “We realised that there are still a lot of players who want fighting games,” Kwan says. “We think there are just too many shooters already – but we’ve been lacking multiplayer fighting games in recent years.”
At a time when the battle royale’s big four seem like unshakeable fixtures, this is how it’s hoped Naraka can carve out its own space. The early signs are good – when we preview the game, it’s alongside the hundreds of thousands of other players who have rushed in to try the game’s final pre-launch beta – but 24 Entertainment isn’t resting on its laurels.
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